“You could at least have bought me dinner first.”
An awkward chuckle came from underneath the green privacy blanket that was draped over my legs. When four medical professionals are examining your cervix with all the feverish expectation of the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun, it’s probably an inappropriate time to make jokes, but that is what I do. It happens when I’m uncomfortable, when I’m nervous or when I’m trying to cope with something that I feel is beyond my control.
In this instance, I was feeling sore and scared. Words like ‘biopsy’ and ‘pre-cancerous’ were being casually fired in my direction as I lay there exposed, violated and vulnerable, more or less naked from the waist down, save for a pair of bright blue penguin socks (I was fine). The only weapon in my arsenal to cope with the indignity of the situation was to try to make myself and everyone else laugh. I had to create a buffer to separate myself from what was happening or I risked bursting into tears.
This ‘humour buffer’, strange as it might seem, has permeated almost every aspect of my life to date.
I have made inappropriate jokes at funerals. When someone delivers bad news, I have to cover my mouth in case my nerves cause me to smile. If a friend needs to feel better, they know not to come for me to hear the right, delicate words of comfort – I am the person to distract them with awkwardly delivered one liners. It’s not through lack of respect or that I don’t care – quite the opposite – it’s just that making light of serious situations is the only way I know how to handle difficult things. It’s that or eating my feelings to the point where I need medical attention.
When faced with someone I find attractive, I will make so many self-deprecating remarks about myself, the other person can be left wondering how I managed to successfully leave the house without causing myself an injury. At school, I was not the most athletic, the most intelligent, the most talented or even the bravest but if you needed a sarcastic comment, I was there. No one would pick on someone who could cut them back with words. As an adult, my default setting when trying to make a first impression is to make it my mission to make that person laugh out of some deep felt desire to ensure they know I’m not a bad person. Bad people don’t try and make strangers happy, after all. Having not been blessed with the greatest amount of self-esteem, I spent years trying to cultivate a personality – having been told how important having one is and being informed along the way that a sense of humour can make up for any perceived aesthetic shortcomings.
It’s the simple idea that if you can make someone laugh with you, you can stop them before they can laugh at you.
In a similar way to experiencing an overwhelming urge to crush something you perceive to be cute with your bare hands, there is science and psychology behind using humour as a form of self-protection.
George Vaillant of Harvard Medical School categorised humour as one of his ‘mature’ defence mechanisms. You can make of that what you will, that even the most stupid jokes with the crudest punchlines could be considered ‘mature’ but the human body is a complicated thing. Laughter makes your brain produce endorphins which raise our pain thresholds and supposedly reduce any feelings of discomfort or upset we may be feeling at the time. Why? Because science!
Sigmund Freud, when he wasn’t unsettling everyone every time he talked about his Mother, once said, ‘A cigar may just be a cigar but a joke is never just a joke’ under the belief that we use jokes to deal with our individual anxieties and issues. You might release nervous laughter when the timing is completely inappropriate or when you are frightened. You might be fond of self-deprecating remarks when your self-esteem is low or you find yourself the subject of attention. You may snap back with sarcasm when you’re feeling defensive or insecure. Whether we are conscious of these behavioural traits or not, they are all coping mechanisms for the myriad of awkward or difficult scenarios we find ourselves in on a daily basis. The physical act of laughing makes your body think everything is actually okay.
Humour helps us cope.
If and when possible, I like to make people laugh. I’d like to think I’m capable of being funny and that’s not just because my Mum tells me I am. In recent months, I’ve stood at a podium before a large crowd and told ‘funny’ stories and I’m certain only half of the laughs in response were polite. A few years ago, I even won the Humour Blog Award at the Irish Blog Awards which, whilst certainly isn’t a conventional comedy benchmark, is still a fairly useful personal comeback to anyone who claims women aren’t funny. There is a special sort of buzz you get when you can coax a pure and happy reaction from another person. Everyone wins – they get to laugh and you get to feel good making them do it. Making people laugh is a wonderful thing.
But that’s when I’m feeling well.
For over fourteen years, I have been plagued with depression and anxiety. During the worst times, I can often feel suffocated in my own body or like my own skin is infected. When this happens, this aforementioned ‘humour buffer’ comes to serve for a greater purpose when I desperately feel the need to laugh and the need cover up my misery with a mask of bubbly grins and preternatural enthusiasm. This odd little performance of sorts sprung from the subconscious belief that by focusing on making other people smile, I could deflect attention away from the panic behind my eyes and the overwhelming sadness I was feeling. It didn’t matter how lost or bruised I felt; if I could get a laugh – just one laugh – maybe I could trick that person into tolerating me being around despite firmly believing in my own head that I was the worst person in the world. You can also find comfort in humour even when you think you’ll never feel joy again. When I didn’t feel like smiling, I would mimic the happy expressions of other people, thinking to myself ‘Am I doing this right?’ even though my fake smile ran the risk of me looking constipated.
Pretending your world is nothing but sunshine and rainbows and denying to yourself and everyone around you that you aren’t coping is unhealthy of course. When the inevitable truth comes out, it also makes for more of a shock for people to realise just how much of a show you’ve been putting on. Once, at work, when it was all about to become too much to handle, I accidentally dropped a glass shelf. It smashed into a thousand pieces. I sat in the shards and wept. When I was found and was forced to explain the current state of my poor mental health, I was met with a confused ‘… But you’re so funny. You can’t really be sad can you?’
People who make jokes aren’t miserable. ‘Happiness is contagious’ they say. Funny people are good company. Nobody wants to be with the sad girl.
For all the scientific, biological and psychological advantages, sometimes using humour as a shield can work against you.
I live for and thrive on conversations with other people – I love people – but when I’m approached, for instance, by someone whose company I don’t welcome, my natural instinct is to make myself feel more comfortable. So I joke. I make a quip or two from behind what I perceive to be my safe little buffer. However, this doesn’t read as ‘I’m trying to be polite here; please leave me alone’ but instead ‘I am enjoying this attention; please continue’.
In relationships of my past, both romantic and otherwise, the nature of my noisy, fractured brain means that I’m generally terrible at articulating my feelings and expressing what I want or need. I would shake off traces or concerns with a joke about nothing in particular or deflect attention with something stupid I found on the Internet because nothing solves a woe like a video of a cat falling into a bin.
At university, fresh from the high of being accepted to study the prestigious Creative Writing module at university, my joy was soon dashed as I was regularly informed by my ashen faced, indoor-scarf wearing tutor that I ‘didn’t take my work seriously’. Having tried to translate what I had absorbed from a lifetime of furiously devouring old comedy shows and my favourite pieces of hilarious fiction into some of my own writing, it gave the impression that I had no fucks to give. My argument that comedy pieces didn’t need to be serious in the first place was met with an affronted ‘But what about the DRAMA? What about the PAIN?’ There was drama and there was pain. Under the surface. I just wasn’t about to expose it to strangers. Perhaps it was foolish to submit my light-hearted short stories about silly people and silly things but it was safer than exposing my personal writing. It would be like letting a room full of people eager to compete, impress and dissect, take apart your embarrassing teenage poetry before you. At the time, I didn’t realise just how much I held back behind a veil of piss taking. Needless to say, the tutor did not warm to me.
When I would sit on a cold, hard plastic chair in my therapist’s office – mourning ever so slightly the lack of the stereotypical red chaise longue you would see in films – I would let hours tick by without really saying anything of use at all. Any attempt to mine into the real problem was met with ridiculous tangents, rants as though I was holding a mic in front of a red brick wall in a comedy club, nervous jokes and sarcastic remarks until time would tick out and I would leave frustrated and in tears because I didn’t feel any better at all.
Performing is exhausting. Although it may come laden with frustration and require them to summon new levels of patience, I reserve my vulnerable, quieter side for a select few. They are the people that I don’t have to act happy around and the people can I feel comfortable enough to expose the raw, insecure mess that I can be without fear of judgment. My depression and anxiety comes in waves and they know to let me wait for the tide to retreat and when I can and do laugh about something – truly laugh, out loud and without thought – then they know I’m coming back and that I’m okay again.
Dr Tim Sharp of The Happiness Institute – which the Internet assures me is a real thing – stated that ‘Humour is a core component in resiliency’. For every time we laugh when times are tough, for every moment we can smile when our hearts are breaking and for every instance we look at a difficult situation from another angle to find the funny side, we become tougher, stronger and more resilient. It may sound like the lesson from a terrible made-for-TV film but, if true, it is a very fine thing.
Having a ‘humour buffer’ is important particularly when faced with stress, worry and discomfort. It can also cause you to act in socially unacceptable ways but life can be shitty and there are worse ways to handle it than developing a thick exoskeleton of silliness.
Sometimes all you can do is laugh.
Laura Carland is from Belfast and writes about ‘Stuff’ and ‘Things’. She can be found at elleemsee.wordpress.com and she tweets at @ElleEmSee. She would like to apologise in advance.
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